Current Affairs

The Noirs of Melville

The films of Jean-Pierre Melville are stylish and seductive. Their meaning isn’t obvious—nor should it be. A look at some of the most original and satisfying films of the last century.

Film noir is an elusive, amorphous thing, something you recognise when you see it but is incredibly difficult to pin down. There are things you can point to that you expect from film noir—plots from hardboiled crime fiction, cinematography from German Expressionism, private eyes, and femme fatales—but nothing firm. 

Paul Schrader wrote that film noir is defined by its tone—a fatalistic, hopeless one—but even that is slightly too specific. More than a genre, a style or a tone, noir is a vibe: something’s film noir if it feels like it is, and any definition is an attempt to backfill a reasoning. When classic films noirs were being made in Hollywood, the industry wasn’t consciously making film noir, the way people consciously made westerns—as James Naremore outlines in More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, the idea was only defined retrospectively. The dozens of tropes, stock characters, and shooting styles that make up film noir don’t have a standard arrangement, or even an obvious connection to one another, but through the act of repetition, they collectively acquired new meaning. Film noir is fall guys, cynical detectives, down-and-out boxers, and struggling writers; it’s shadows cast from Venetian blinds, rain on a city night, low angle shots and first-person voiceover narration; it’s Humphrey Bogart looking as cool as possible while smoking a cigarette. 

Noir has been homaged, referenced, and parodied so much that every part of it is cliché. Even if you’ve never seen a classic noir, you would instantly recognize it, assimilated into your consciousness from a lifetime of sketches and sitcom or cartoon parodies. I’m sure this makes the thing itself off-putting for a lot of people: it’s worn-out and hackneyed, or at the very least, something you’ve basically already seen before. It’s an assumption I still catch myself making after being proven wrong a hundred times: so many of my favorite films I first knew through Simpsons episodes that parodied them. But when I finally get around to the culture I’ve already assimilated through parody, the thing itself isn’t diminished at all: there’s a clear and obvious reason it stuck around enough to become part of the general consciousness decades later. Clichés become clichés for a reason (yes, even this one).

Noir was pioneered in Hollywood, but more than that, it could only have been pioneered in Hollywood, something new produced from the melding of the talents of film artists who had fled countries across Europe due to the rise of fascism. It became popular and ubiquitous for reasons very particular to its time; at the height of enforcement of the Hays Code—the self-censorship code of the major Hollywood studios—film noirs provided thrills and titillation by skirting its bounds: if crime and sex outside of marriage could only be depicted if the characters were duly punished, that meant you could depict crime and sex, as long as you tacked on an unhappy ending. Noirs could be made at any budget, and owed their ubiquity in part to being in practice mostly low-budget affairs without major stars. But what made the great ones great then is much the same as what makes them great now: clockwork-plotted detective stories, the much missed art of cigarette acting, and some of the best cinematographers ever to do it. 

The classic noir period was during the 1940s and 1950s, but noir has continued to reappear in new forms, new arrangements, right up to the present day—sometimes in sci-fi dystopias (Blade Runner), paranoid conspiracy thrillers (Klute), as a tormented passion (Bad Lieutenant), and even a Christmas black comedy (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). Then there’s the work of director Jean-Pierre Melville: devoted to classic noir even as he recontextualizes and deconstructs it, Melville feels like a bridge between all that noir was and all that it would become. 

Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, he adopted the name Melville in tribute to Herman Melville while fighting in the French Resistance. After the war, his application to become an assistant director was denied, and so he decided to make films independently, setting up his own film studio in Paris. His directorial debut, Le Silence de la Mer, is the story of a man and his niece who refuse to speak to a German soldier occupying their home during the Nazi occupation of France, adapted from a novel for which Melville didn’t secure the rights. It was made on a tiny budget, and takes place almost entirely in a single room. Melville’s independence helped pave the way for the French New Wave—indeed, when Jean-Luc Godard was having trouble editing Breathless, it was Melville who suggested he cut directly to the best parts of the shot, inspiring Godard’s innovative use of jump cuts. But mostly, Melville was a genre filmmaker, through and through. If film noir is mostly a vibe, nothing feels quite as noir as Melville’s crime films. “I like the American films noirs better than anything,” he told Sight and Sound in 1968, and that love saturates his work, defines his aesthetic. 

Particularly in the middle of the twentieth century, there was a fascinating triangular cinematic relationship between the United States, Europe, and Japan, most clearly in genre pictures. Distinct traditions were in constant interplay with one another, creating a truly international cinema without sacrificing the specifics of national context. America’s global cultural domination had come into its own after the war, and European and Japanese filmmakers took these American forms they knew so well and made them their own. (And, for once, Americans looked back: thanks to the 1948 antitrust case which ended studios’ control of theaters, foreign and independent films became bona fide hits in the United States.) Westerns are the other genre Silver and Ward identify as wholly American, but the history of the western sprawls across the globe, with particular roots in Italy—home of the spaghetti western—and Japan, where samurai movies repurposed the tropes and structures of American westerns. Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars is an unauthorized Italian remake of Yojimbo, an Akira Kurosawa samurai movie, channeling both Japanese and American influences into something all its own, creating an entirely new style. 

The same dynamics were true of film noir. Kurosawa made many noirs in Japan (Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well, High and Low) and lots of noirs were made in France during the classic period and after. What Sergio Leone did with the western, Melville did with noir. 

“With the Western, film noir shares the distinction of being an indigenous American form,” Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward write, calling it “a wholly American film style.” This was never fully true – there are lots of classic British noirs, like Brighton Rock or The Third Man, not to mention noirs from France, Mexico, Japan or Italy – yet Melville’s French noirs feel less like a rebuttal than a nod of agreement. He was sometimes criticised in France for making “American” films, but this is precisely what makes his work so interesting: he takes something distinctly American and remoulds it, refashions it for his own ends. And nowhere is that clearer than in the three films he made starring Alain Delon: Le Samouraï (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970), and the last film before his death at age 55, Un Flic (1972). 

“There is no solitude greater than a samurai’s,” appears as on-screen text at the beginning of Le Samouraï, “unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle…” The quote is attributed to The Book of Bushido, but Melville made it up. We see what looks like an empty room. There’s a cold gray light filtering through two windows, and our eyes are first drawn to the silver wire birdcage between them. It takes a few moments to register that there is a person lying on the bed. You notice the smoke curling from his cigarette before you notice the man himself. He gets up and goes to the hatstand, putting on his fedora and adjusting the brim. He goes out into the street. 

This is Jef Costello, played by Delon, who is startlingly beautiful yet inscrutable. We watch him break into a car—he systematically goes through a ring with hundreds of different keys—and drives to a garage. The mechanic changes his license plates while he waits and smokes. The mechanic gives him a gun; Costello gives him cash. Not a word is spoken. 

Costello is a contract killer. The film follows him as he sets up his alibis, kills a nightclub owner, gets picked up by the cops, is double-crossed by the men who hired him, and becomes the target of a police manhunt. But the plot is largely incidental to what makes the film so special. “Like a painter or a musician, a filmmaker can suggest complete mastery with just a few strokes.  Melville involves us in the spell of Le Samouraï before a word is spoken,” Roger Ebert wrote, “He does it with light… And color… And actions that speak in place of words.” Le Samouraï is somehow both minimalist—there are no backstories and precious little dialogue—and almost hyper-stylised. It strips American noir to its bones, but it doesn’t strip away the artifice so much as strips away a phony kind of realism. It doesn’t take place in a realistic version of France or America, but some place both and neither, a world of ritzy nightclubs with anglophonic names (Martey’s, not Chez Martey), of American cars on Paris streets. It’s shot in a palette of cold blues and grays that makes it feel like black and white even though it’s in color: Melville told Sight and Sound that is why he used black and white photocopies of bank notes, and black and grey labels on Evian water. While American noirs are famed for witty repartee, Le Samouraï dwells on silence, soaks us in it, frequently eschewing score where you might expect it. And while the hats and coats of American noir have at least a vague realism to them—men did dress like that back then—the clothes in Le Samouraï take on an almost mystical significance.  Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin point out that the white gloves Costello wears for the murder are editor’s gloves, “displacing the magic proper to cinema into the world of the fiction.” Costello, like a film editor, is “playing with the linear chain of events, erasing characters from the frame, altering the arrangement of the pieces, and splicing fragments together without leaving a trace.” The hats, like those in a western, are the man himself: when Jef checks his hat but leaves his check number behind, it signals that he won’t be coming back for it—his death is imminent. (According to the Film Noir Foundation, Melville claimed that all his original screenplays were “without exception” transposed westerns.) You can also see the influence of Japanese cinema, not just in the title but in its combination of graceful minimalism and excruciating attention to detail. It’s a film obsessed with meticulous planning, as we watch extended scenes of Costello setting up his airtight two-part alibi, or glide in to have his license plates changed without needing to say a word. Equally, it carefully follows each step of the process by which the cops set up the cat-and-mouse chase through the metro. Le Samouraï reaches east to samurai films and west to Hollywood noir, and channels them into something new. 

Four years before Le Samouraï, Melville directed Magnet of Doom, a noir-inflected road movie which was partly filmed on location in the United States. Its loving shots of roadside motels and Frank Sinatra’s birthplace throw the unreality of Le Samouraï into starker relief: Bertrand Tavernier called it the difference between dreaming America and filming it. The world of Le Samouraï is, in some ways, America as non-Americans imagine it: an America defined by our relationship to the big screen. The United States is so culturally dominant across the globe that the rest of us are primed from birth to know and care about it, in a way that no other country dominates Americans’ consciousness. I have lived in Ireland my whole life, but I think about America every day. I was raised on American films and television. American news, American pop music, American literature. Even though the internet should be by definition a borderless, international place, the United States is treated as the Default Country online. It’s like a cultural one-way mirror, where we constantly observe the US and Americans never look back at us, aren’t even aware we’re there. And if they occasionally do look, they see us as cartoon versions of ourselves

This makes America seem like a dreamland: going there would mean climbing inside the screen. Intellectually, I know this is a form of cultural imperialism. My visual imagination has been so thoroughly colonized that I do a double-take when I see someone drive on the left side of the road on-screen. Yet I also dearly love a lot of American culture, in ways that don’t at all feel inauthentic or forced: Martin Scorsese is my favourite living artist in any medium, the best seasons of television ever made are Twin Peaks: The Return and the second season of Frasier, and I would probably be dead without mid-2000s pop punk. My love of American culture and my resentment of its dominance is a constant war in my heart. But it feels best resolved by fellow European nerds obsessed with America: Leone and Melville. 

Le Cercle Rouge also opens with a made-up quote: “Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: ‘When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.’” The film both pushes Le Samouraï’s stylisation further and breaks from its outlook. Le Samouraï is a study in solitude of caged birds, and is ultimately bleakly fatalistic. Right from the fictitious epigraph, Le Cercle Rouge sets out different goals: this is a story of men who are destined to meet, who are tied together by the fates. It is, improbably, a story with a heart. 

We open with Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) boarding a train. He’s a prisoner being transported from Marseille to Paris. From nightfall to dawn, he slowly and carefully prepares his escape: delicately taking a safety pin out of his pocket, pushing the sharp end against the wall to bend it, silently picking the lock of his handcuff, and finally, loudly, breaking the train window to jump out into the open countryside. That same morning, Corey (Delon, with a moustache that obscures his beauty and in that way, humanizes him) is being released from prison early for good behaviour. Before he leaves, a guard tips him off about a jewelry store he could rob. 

Vogel and Corey don’t meet until forty minutes in, but long before that the editing and camerawork, like the fates, tie these men together. Inspector Mattei is guarding Vogel on the train, and at one point, he looks up towards Vogel lying in the top bunk, but instead of cutting to Vogel the way the basic language of editing has trained you to expect, it cuts to Corey lying in his prison bed, miles away. In Le Samouraï, Jef is alone no matter how many people he’s surrounded by, but in Le Cercle Rouge, Corey and Vogel are together even when in total isolation. 

The police have set up roadblocks throughout the area in their search for Vogel. Corey’s driving through in his brand new American car, bought with money he demanded from his former criminal partner. When he pulls over to get a coffee, Vogel climbs in his trunk. At one of the roadblocks, the cops ask to check Corey’s trunk, but he makes a show of none of the keys working—it’s a new car, they must not have given him the right one—and the police officer lets him go. A little while later, Corey pulls over in a field, gets out, lights a cigarette, and tells Vogel to get out of the car. Vogel and the audience both realise that Corey knew he was hiding in the trunk the whole time. It is, without a shadow of the doubt, one of the greatest meet-cutes in film history. 

“You weren’t afraid?” Vogel asks Corey.

“What of?” 

“Me, to start with,” Vogel says, “And them finding me in your trunk, for instance.”

Corey silently tosses him a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. They look at each other, the camera dollying in on each of them, shot reverse shot, the score swelling. Suddenly Delon’s eyes, normally so inscrutable, feel anything but. 

The final member of their three-man gang is Jansen (Yves Montand), an alcoholic former policeman. When we first see him, he’s lying in bed, drenched in sweat, hallucinating snakes and spiders crawling all over him: “the beasts,” he calls them. While Corey and Vogel plan the jewelry store heist, holed up in Corey’s apartment, they realise they’ll need a marksman to disable the security system with a single shot from a rifle. And Jansen is a hell of a good shot. The best on the force. 

The film’s centerpiece is the heist, which plays out over half an hour of screen time in total silence. There is no music, no voiceover, and no dialogue. (Later, a policeman reviewing the security camera footage hilariously says, “They’re not much for talk.”) It’s Le Samouraï’s infatuation with a meticulous process taken even further. The question of whether they’ll pull it off pales in importance next to how they pull it off. Moments that would be the key source of tension in most films—a security guard checks out the window Corey and Vogel crouch next to, just missing them—are no more important than the way a rope ladder falls against the side of the building, the tiny sound a bag makes when it hits the floor. Jansen shows up in a tuxedo, shoes slung around his neck so he can walk soundlessly. He sets up his shot perfectly with a tripod, his custom-made bullets pointed directly at the tiny target to disable the alarm. Then he just takes the shot freehand instead. And of course he hits it. It’s a moment of pure, cathartic joy for the audience, but the men don’t take the time to rejoice in it. They keep moving forward, perfectly in tune with one another. It’s hypnotic. 

It’s also what haters might call “style over substance.” Melville’s Americanized noirs invite this critique, because they are mannered genre exercises, abstracted from society. I dislike the “style over substance” criticism in general—the distinction between form and content seems a bit too neat and tidy for me—but mostly, I worry about becoming so fixated on meaning that we lose sight of beauty. It’s tempting, because even when meaning is ambiguous, it’s more or less articulable: I’ve never quite decided if Dirty Harry is fascist, but I have no trouble verbalizing the argument either way. Beauty is ineffable. I mean beauty in the widest possible sense: ugliness can be a type of beauty, because it’s not about adherence to any traditional mores but the totally individual yet universal experience of how aesthetics make us feel. People have tried to understand and articulate it in philosophy, criticism and art itself since time immemorial, but beauty will always exceed our capacity to express it. But it’s also what art is made of: beauty and feelings. The great French director Robert Bresson said that film should have no beautiful images, only necessary ones. Yet his films are, like all films, unnecessary. And they’re utterly beautiful. The heist sequence in Le Cercle Rouge is beautiful too. It works within established forms like a sonnet, composes visuals like a painting, moves with the elegance of a ballet. It’s holding your breath, it’s sitting on the edge of your seat. It’s film noir. It’s cinema itself. It goes off without a hitch. 

It’s a dark film, one where “all men are guilty” is repeated like a mantra. But that is why the sweetness shot through it is so disarming. Betrayal is one of Melville’s eternal themes, which he usually positions as inevitable. But Corey, Vogel and Jansen never betray one another. The ending, in which the cops kill our three heroes, is a definite downer, but that loyalty is a small shaft of light in the darkness. Corey goes to meet the fence; Vogel bursts in to save Corey when he realises it’s a set up; Jansen is there to help, just like he promised. Sure, the cops catch them. But they’re Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They’re Bonnie and Clyde. They’re legendary outlaws going out together in a hail of bullets. 

Un Flic reverses Alain Delon’s role, casting him as the cop instead of the criminal. With neither hat nor moustache, Delon plays Edouard Coleman, the disaffected detective opposite Richard Crenna’s Simon, a nightclub owner and thief who is his friend, nemesis and love rival all at once. Coleman and Simon have opposite roles in an elaborate dance, and the sides they have ended up on are almost arbitrary. 

It’s easy to think of Delon’s playing the cop as casting against type, not unlike Henry Fonda playing the black hat villain in Once Upon a Time in the West after a lifetime of clean-cut heroes. But Delon doesn’t play Coleman as a stark contrast to Corey and Jef so much as a variant on the same theme. The silence of his mouth and the blankness of his eyes are taken to their furthest extent, while his violence is less meticulous and more random. I don’t think any human being has ever looked as beautiful as Delon does in a scene where he plays piano, a cigarette dangling from his lips, but it’s a steely, cold beauty. This is what makes Coleman so unsettling: he’s Corey without loyalty, or Jef without a code of honour. It’s not unlike John Wayne’s performance as obsessive, violent, racist Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, which Martin Scorsese wrote is so disturbing exactly because it is essentially “of a piece with Wayne’s persona.” 

Un Flic never quite reaches the heights of Le Samouraï or Le Cercle Rouge. Despite its elaborate set pieces, it’s not as tightly constructed as those films, and doesn’t wind up tension with the same careful precision. But it is particularly interesting when watched alongside those films, as it actively invites you to. The invitation is in Delon’s casting, but in a dozen other details, too. Melville reuses locations from his previous films, like a railway bridge from Le Doulos or the same street as the restaurant from Le Deuxième Souffle. There’s a fleeting shot where we see names and phone numbers scrawled onto a wall next to a telephone: among them, Robert Montagné, AKA Bob from Melville’s 1956 film Bob le Flambeur, Gustave Minda from Le Deuxième Souffle, and Jef from Le Samouraï. The iconography of Melville’s films—the fedoras and trench coats, the cars and trains and nightclubs, the mock-monochrome palette of blues and grays—is all present and correct, even if our protagonist remains hatless. If Melville’s earlier noirs reached west to Hollywood, Un Flic reaches back through his own filmography. Even though Melville planned to make more films before his death, this one still feels like an elegiac goodbye. 

The film’s best sequence is a 20 minute heist that plays out in real time. Simon and his gang plan to steal a suitcase of heroin that a rival gang is transporting by train. They fly over the train in a helicopter, lowering Simon down to sneak on-board. The wide shots of the helicopter and train are very obviously models—a point of frequent ridicule—but that seems, to me, to be self-conscious artifice, the same way Melville’s continued use of rear-projection driving shots is. Melville’s films aren’t interested in realism; they’re self-conscious meta-cinema. They’re a testament to how seeing the strings can be as much part of movie magic as not seeing them. But even if you’re bothered by the models, the sequence that plays out from there is so perfect that it’s easily forgiven. 

On paper, Simon changes out of his boilersuit into pajamas in the toilet cubicle, goes to the guy’s compartment and knocks him out, takes the suitcase of drugs, puts his boilersuit back on and gets raised back up to the helicopter. On screen, it’s incredible. It’s the meticulous attention to process from Le Samouraï or Le Cercle Rouge boiled down to its essence. It’s tense, thrilling filmmaking, delivering the excitement and dread that something will go wrong and the satisfaction of a job perfectly executed. It doesn’t rely on music or shaky cam and quick cuts to produce that, just light and color and movement. The unseen, unmentioned ticking clock lurking in the background. No film has ever mined such tension from Richard Cranna combing his hair. 

You can see Melville’s influence on a generation of filmmakers all over the world: Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Heat, the Oceans trilogy and Drive. His masterpiece is probably Army of Shadows, his brilliant, discomforting film based in part on his experience in the French Resistance. Army of Shadows is obviously capital-i Important, and his noirs seem by comparison to be frivolous confections. But that would only be true if joy and cool and delight are frivolous; if beauty is frivolous. 

This way of thinking about film is rooted in the separation of content from form: reducing art to a bullet point list of ideas, as if the Star Wars prequels having interesting themes means Attack of the Clones suddenly isn’t the most mind numbingly boring film ever made. This separation—focusing on meaning to the exclusion of beauty—dulls our ability to appreciate art, at least on its own terms. It cuts us off from what people even like about art, and what makes it art in the first place. This, in addition to being bad cultural criticism, is terrible leftism. The unequal distribution of wealth is the most urgent and material way capitalism hurts the poor and working class, but there are other ways human life can be impoverished. Socialists should of course want everyone to get the bare necessities to live. But we should want so much more than that: for everyone to have a life rich in leisure, recreation, and beauty. 

Watching the heist go down in a Melville movie is pure cinema, unburdened by the responsibility to be anything “more”. It’s the kind of thing that is so easy to dismiss as superficial or cosmetic style, yet it never feels like a glossy surface with a hollow centre. It feels like tapping into the ineffable. They’re the coolest films I’ve ever seen. They’re so beautiful it’s thrilling. 

Film noir has an elusive, amorphous nature, and Melville’s films reflect that: they choose to be light on dialogue and let the ineffable do the talking. It’s that magic—the magic of art’s ability to express for us, and to us, and with us what we cannot express through language alone—that the moralistic, meaning-focused, content-over-form turn in criticism risks losing sight of. 

More In: Entertainment

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

Our eclectic and verdant rainforest issue!

The Latest From Current Affairs